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Adventures In Moving In An Italian Hill Town

There are times in Italy when simple things are not so simple after all. You start out with a clear expectation and find yourself confronted with unexpected surprises.

For example, moving your household goods from one apartment to another apartment just a few blocks away, "as far as the crow flies," ought to be simple. Problem is, you can’t get there from here.

This is particularly true when you live in an Italian hill town that is over 2,100 years old.

In towns (comune) like mine, the streets were designed for Roman foot soldiers, for horses, horse-drawn merchant carts, the occasional chariot for Roman royalty on holiday, and ordinary townspeople walking to the market.

This Road Is Perfect For A Roman Chariot But Not A 21st Century Moving Van

This Road Is Perfect For A Roman Chariot But Not A 21st Century Moving Van

To be sure, the winding, undulating, and often steep streets of old were not designed for today’s giant household moving vans.

Some of the streets here are paved with a type of stone (sampietrini), which are small intricately cut stones that are locked tightly together end-on-end. Other streets utilize cobblestones (ciottolo), extremely hard roundish rocks of comparable size that are secured with mortar.

Though these paving materials are durable, and laid to be to artfully attractive, they also can be noisy, bumpy, and devilishly slippery when wet.

Many of our medieval streets are also exceptionally narrow -- bordering on impassable by mini-car unless you first fold in the side rear view mirrors.

Add to this streets with sharp turns, overhanging second-floor balconies (balcone sporgente), row upon row of potted plants making the street even narrower, and a moving van is out of the question.

A Second Floor Balcony

A Second Floor Balcony Jutting Out Into The Roadway

Can Make Travel "Difficult" For Moving Vans

You can see and learn more about sampietrini HERE, and cobblestones HERE.

I have lived in three different locations within the old Roman and medieval hill town of Spello, in Central Italy.

A View Of Spello, Italy

A View Of Spello, Italy

My First Move

The first move was easy. I had moved from the U.S. carrying a couple of suitcases. It wasn’t raining so there was no worry about slipping on sampietrini or cobblestones.

My first apartment was created out of the basement (fondo) of a three-story building. The apartment space on the ground floor was originally where animals were housed centuries ago. The apartment was dug out of a hillside buttressed by a thick natural stone back wall. It featured an eat-in kitchen, a living room, a bathroom and an elevated small bedroom loft area located above the living room. Just outside the front door is a wonderful view of a beautifully restored 2,000-year old Roman Gate built to protect townspeople from invaders.

The apartment was almost completely furnished. I literally opened the door to the apartment and moved in.

My Second Move

For the second move, I relocated to another apartment also in the old historic center of Spello. The two apartments were close “as far as the crow flies,” but much further by car.

Because I had few things to move, I expected moving day would be fairly easy. I thought it would take only one trip to move everything.

After I met with Franco, the local moving expert, I began to realize that I had underestimated the task.

Franco had been highly recommended to me by some very kind Italian neighbors. They told me that Franco was a specialist with vast experience with moves within historical towns.

I first met with Franco on a cold, cloudy day in November to discuss the move in detail and to get a sense of what it would cost. I was surprised to discover that Franco was likely in his 70s. He had an iron grip and there was no doubt about his physical fitness.

Franco had a remarkably warm sense of humor while speaking in both Italian and the local Umbrian dialect. I understood much of his Italian but the Umbrian dialect was incomprehensible to me.

We went outside and Franco pointed out several challenges that he would have to deal with on moving day.

The first challenge was the narrow street called “Via Mura Vecchie”. The street name means “Old Walls Street” because there actually are two walls: an ancient Roman wall that parallels an old medieval wall.

A View Looking Down The Street With Two Roman Towers

A View Looking Down The Street With Two Roman Towers

Second, he noted that because of a wicked sharp left turn, followed by an immediate right turn, it would be impossible to drive from one end of the street to the other. He would need to pull up to load and then back up the full 200 feet length of the street. This task would be impossible in a moving van.

A Notorious Turn Which Is Difficult For Cars & Especially Moving Vans!

A Notorious Turn Which Is Difficult For Cars & Especially Moving Vans!

The Sign Above Says "Only Authorized Vehicles Are Allowed"

Third, while backing down, Franco needed to be very diligent not to hit the religious niche dedicated to the Virgin Mary located about halfway down the street. The niche also jutted out a bit into the street making backing down even harder.

Religious Niche

The Religious Niche Which Can Be Quite A Car Scraper If You Are Not Careful

Front View Of The Religious Niche  Dedicated To The Virgin Mary

Front View Of The Religious Niche

Dedicated To The Virgin Mary

Fourth, the street does not go in a straight line nor is it all the same width the entire way which makes backing down more challenging.

The View Up The Steep Street

The View Up The Steep Street

Fifth and most importantly, Franco stated that a large or medium size moving van would not fit on this narrow street. Not even a small van (furgone), would not be an option. All three sizes were simply too big.

The Street Narrows

At The Top, The Street Narrows

Of Course Our Apartment Is Located At The Very Top Past The Two Cars

As he pointed out each of these issues, he noticed what must have been a look of disappointment and concern on my face. He stopped for a moment, paused, then smiled and finally roared with laughter. He then slapped me on the back and said not to worry, that the move would actually be “molto facile” or “very easy.”

Franco said he would use what is called an “ape” for the move. An ape or “ah-pay” as it is pronounced, is the Italian word for bumble bee. An ape is a small three-wheeled, pickup-like truck. It is unique to Italy and it sounds a bit like the buzzing of a bumble bee when it zips along.

An ape is typically used by farmers or handymen. It is small, remarkably versatile and can pretty well navigate any nook or cranny in a medieval town. For its small size, it is remarkably powerful and can climb nearly every steep hill. Franco said that an ape would be perfect to navigate Spello’s narrow streets and go up the steep hill to my new apartment.

I had seen ape trucks many times but it had never occurred to me to use one this way. Now that Franco had mentioned it, this made a lot of sense.

An Italian Ape Truck

An Italian Ape Truck Which Is Transformed Into A Moving Van

On moving day, Franco and his trusty, young muscular assistant, arrived in an ape to move my stuff. For each trip, they had to take a long, circuitous, two-mile route to get from the old apartment to the new apartment even though it was a very short walking distance.

For an added twist, after a long day and after having made four trips (not the single trip as I had originally anticipated), the movers elected to carry and walk up with the final load, a long and heavy dining room table, rather than drive the ape. They said that it would be much quicker and easier than driving, even though the walk was up a steep hill.

As Franco and his assistant walked up the hill, I locked the door to my old place for the last time while wistfully saying goodbye to the Roman gate which I had walked by countless times. I wondered how many people over the centuries had walked these same streets and enjoyed the magnificent view.

I was excited to move to a new place but at the same time, I felt a tinge of melancholy. I was looking at a Roman gate built over 2,000 years ago. In my old U.S. neighborhood, a building was “old” if it was 175 years old. This gate was more than 10 times older and that was hard to fathom. After bidding farewell to the familiar view, I eagerly walked uphill to the new apartment where I ultimately lived for nine years.

My Third Move

After deciding to relocate to Italy, it was time to find a bigger apartment and move a third time.

The main thoroughfare to this apartment was only slightly wider than the width of a small car in several places. There was also a tight left-hand turn to navigate and the walls showed it. I thought to myself that another adventure awaits.

A Nasty Left Turn

A Nasty Left Turn – With Car Scape Marks To Prove It

Franco had done such a great job with the last move, I called him right away, hopeful that after all of these years he was still in business. Franco was pleased to hear from me and told me that he was in the process of winding down his moving business so he could retire. However, for a friend he said, he was willing to handle one last move.

He told me that this time he would enlist his nephew, Marco to assist. Marco owned a truck that Franco thought would work a bit better than an ape for this move. I was delighted that they would be able to help.

On another cold but sunny day in late January, Franco and Marco arrived to start the move. His first stop was to talk with the police to advise them that he was conducting a move. Franco would be blocking various streets in town for short periods of time. He knew that this would help him avoid getting into trouble if locals complained when he blocked local traffic.

When I first saw Marco’s truck, for some reason it reminded me of a used 1970s Chevrolet El Camino that a college classmate used to own. However, this truck was a bit smaller and much narrower. To move in Spello, I had learned, bigger is not better.

Marco & Franco Loading Up The Truck

Marco & Franco Loading Up The Truck

Franco, Marco and Marco’s truck made numerous trips from the old apartment to the new apartment. Prior to starting the first trip, Franco asked me to walk behind the truck to ensure that nothing fell off.

The first trip and subsequent trips were slow going since Marco drove only about 5 miles per hour along the long, curvy and winding road.

A Particularly Narrow Spot

A Particularly Narrow Spot

As I followed the truck and trudged down the hill over rocks smoothed from wear over the years and maybe centuries, I thought about what it must have been like for Roman soldiers to have walked down this same hill town street. I marveled at the beautiful view of the Italian countryside and the ancient fortified tower next to the street.

The new apartment is on a street called “Via Torre Belvedere.” Roughly translated this means “Beautiful View of the Tower Street.”

View Going Down And Around From My Old Apartment

View Going Down And Around From My Old Apartment

As we neared the new apartment, I smelled some bread baking and got a whiff of sugar cookies from a family-owned bakery. This bakery is located almost across the street from the new apartment. I started to worry a bit about this great smell and the potential for gaining weight in this new neighborhood.

We then arrived. The new apartment is located in a “new” building. It was built in the 17th Century on top of an earlier Roman-era building, parts of which are still visible. We stopped and unpacked the truck in a nearby piazza and carried the furniture, clothes and other household goods inside.

A Typical Street In Spello

A Typical Street In Spello

We then completed several more trips. But the final trip was the most memorable.

During the last trip, we drove up a hill just as the sun was starting to set. It was a stunning sunset – one of the frequent gorgeous sunsets that occur here.

Franco abruptly slowed down and stopped the truck. He yelled “CheTramonto” – “What A Sunset!” We all sat quietly and admired the beauty of the sunset with dazzling yellow, pink and purple colors for what seemed like an eternity. From an American perspective, it was a “Stop And Smell The Roses” type of moment.

A Stunning Sunset In Spello, Italy

A Stunning Sunset In Spello, Italy

But since we were in Italy it was truly “Stop And Smell The Pasta” moment.

Franco Making Sure All Is Well While Marco Drives Around Another Car

Franco Making Sure All Is Well While Marco Drives Around Another Car

We returned to drop off the final load and I happily paid Franco and Marco the price we had agreed upon.

Marco then pulled out a surprise from his coat. He presented me with a very treasured bottle of his very own white wine. Marco proudly noted he has been making wine now for over 30 years. He strongly encouraged me to honor Italian tradition and take time to toast and celebrate the new house – perhaps with some tasty strangozzi pasta -- which is the typical pasta in this area.

Strangozzi Pasta

Strangozzi Pasta

I thanked Marco his gift, moved by his zest for life, his warm-hearted nature, and his desire to teach me some Italian tradition. To be accepted as family is one of the many reasons why I feel so fortunate to live in Central Italy. Every day here is a day of pleasant surprises.

View From The New Terrace On A Wintry Day

View From The New Terrace On A Wintry Day

Italian Vocabulary:


Attenzione - This means "attention" or "watch out."

Attenzione - Alberi Sporgenti Sulla Carreggiata - This is an important street sign to know especially if you are a moving company. It means "attention, protruding trees above the roadway." I have never seen a street sign like this in the U.S.

Ape – Ape is the Italian word for a bumble bee. It is also the Umbrian term for a three-wheeled vehicle. An ape looks like a cute, very small mini-pickup truck with three wheels. Despite their small size, they are remarkable powerful and are highly versatile. An ape can easily navigate through narrow streets in medieval towns. The vehicle is so named because it makes a loud sound like a bee. However, for the Italian Driver's license test (which is another story for a later time) an ape is technically known as a “mototriciclo a tre ruote”. Now you can understand why Umbrians use just the word "ape."

Balcone Sporgente

Balcone Sporgente - This is another important street sign in Italy to know especially for if you drive a truck. This street sign means that there is a "protruding balcony" above the roadway.

View From Belvedere in Spello

View From Belvedere in Spello - The Old Town Of Assisi Is In The Distance

Belvedere – A belvedere is a location with a beautiful view. Many cities in Italy have streets named “belvedere.” When one sees this word in a street name or on a map, it means that there is a place with a beautiful view.

Che Tramonto – “What a sunset.” Umbria is fortunate to be located in an area that has amazing sunsets. You often hear people exclaim “che tramonto”.

Ciottolo or Cobblestone Used In A Street

Ciottolo or Cobblestone Used In A Street

Ciottolo - Cobblestone. These are small stones which were used with mortar for streets and walkways during medieval times. They are very slippery when wet and it is quite painful to fall on cobblestones.

Comune - The local government structure in Italy is much different from that found in the U.S. In general, Italians do not use the word "city" to refer to a given town. Instead, Italians use the word "comune." A comune is equivalent to a township or a municipality in the U.S.

For example, one lives in the comune of (name of the town.) In very small towns, you will also often see a sign with "frazione di (name of town). A frazione is a small village located outside of the main comune. You can find more information HERE.

FondoThe ground floor of a building often in a partially submerged basement area. In centuries past, a place where animals often were housed. Living quarters are usually located above the fondo.

Furgone – This is a transit van or small truck.

Mura – A wall.



Sampietrini – Irregular shaped stones used by the Romans to pave roads. They are also very slippery when wet.

Strangozzi – A type of pasta popular in the Central Italy region of Umbria. Strangozzi is thicker and wider than spaghetti.

The Torre Di San Severino

The Torre Di San Severino

Near The Apartment

Torre A Tower

Vecchia or Vecchie – Old or old’s in the plural form.

Via – This is the word for street. In English, the word street is often used at the end of the address. In Italy, the word "via" comes at the beginning of the street address and the number is at the end of the address.


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